Monday, August 17, 2009

Zombies Ate My Ontology

For Postmodernism the cyborg seemed to represent a lot of what was being discussed. One of the reasons was that the cyborg, according to Donna Haraway, broke through crucial boundaries that had seemingly separated humanity from its world. The cyborg fused human, animal, organism, and machine into one being. It purposefully blurred boundaries and made murky the waters of pure humanism. Postmodernisms dealings with the cyborg allowed them to break free from dualisms and move beyond humanity – thus was born post-humanism.

But recent philosophical trends, mine included, have moved away from the transcendence of post-humanism to a philosophy that wishes to elevate all objects to the human level (or to lower the human to the level of all other objects). Because of this need to place all things on an equal playing field, Object-Oriented philosophy and ontology (hereto referred to as OOP/OOO) is forced to deal with its own creature.

Given the recent surge of game theory and technical talk seen on Larval Subject’s blog, and his recent post on the uncanny (YAY!!), I’ve been tempted again and again to draw attention to aesthetics, but especially to the Uncanny Valley. Developed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, the idea of the Uncanny Valley can best be summed up with help from his graph:

Seen here, before any form of technology, robotic or not, reaches an exact duplication of human speech, behavior, or physical appearance, it must cross the Uncanny Valley. For Mori, this valley represents the repulsion humanity has toward something that is like a human but is not, and the closer the object resembles a human, the stronger the feeling of disgust. It would seem, then, that as far as aesthetics are concerned, humanity prefers objects that keep their distance, that look different, that act different, that are different.

We could, however, interpret the pinnacle of this first peak in the graph (that peak level to the healthy human being) to be the place of human preference. And in the “still” graph (the solid line) we find a great example of such a preferential object – the stuffed animal. For the stuffed animal presents no threat to humanity, no need to differentiate it and any real animal.

And we could only assume, then, that the humanoid robot that the moving graph (the dotted line) suggests approaches the top of its peak might look something like ASIMO from Honda or the original NES R.O.B. which played Nintendo games with you. In essence these robots are far from being anything “human”, but like the stuffed animal, are simply cute.

But what makes an object “cute?” In a recent post on his blog, Ian Bogost references Graham Harman’s definition, so that “The labors of such agents become "cute" when they are slightly underequipped for their task…” For Bogost, though, Japanese cuteness has taken over from this behavioral “underequipped” cuteness – and is instead a cuteness which relies heavily on appearance. Take for example the difference between the Nintendo Wii’s characters and most of the characters that the Xbox and the Playstation3 pride themselves on – characters which look almost-human. Or to put this another way, while the PS3 and Xbox deal with how real they can make their graphics look, the Wii is content in providing its users with slightly miniature, often large-headed, but almost always cute characters. We have to ask ourselves, why? Why are we less threatened when we create a bobble-headed avatar than when we face a character from Madden 2010 or Halo 3?

The answer lies in the Uncanny Valley. Our Wii avatars are cute, they are in the words of Harman, objects that “are either lovely, or else they are delightfully absorbed in some technique that we ourselves take for granted.” Cute objects allow for forgetfulness, or at least the opportunity to be passed by – “Oh, that’s cute.” For cuteness can never be stared at for too long. Otherwise we progress into the Uncanny Valley. As an example, my daughter has a baby doll she likes to play with. The doll is simply a shaped plastic form with a clothes and pacifier. In the context of my daughter’s play, the doll is cute for it plays the part of a baby but is underequipped to be a real baby. Yet, as Freud noticed (with the help of Jentsch and E.T.A. Hoffman) dolls can become creepy. A “Good Guy Doll” becomes Chucky in Child’s Play, small wooden marionettes become killers in Puppetmaster, and a collection of porcelain playthings become evil monsters in Dolls. Cute has the possibility to become terrifying.

As non-human objects take on human characteristics, they become creepy or horrific. Yet, looked at from the opposite end, as humanity is stripped away of language and of the ability to create and fantasize, it too becomes horrendous. In this way, I feel that OOP/OOO must deal with the creature that presents the true meeting of object and human – the zombie.

From the essential film, Night of the Living Dead (1968) to perhaps the finest in literary achievement in recent decades, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, zombies have become more than mythical creatures. Like Dracula, they have taken their rightful place in popular culture as horrific creatures of the undead. Yet, unlike Dracula or any vampire for that fact, zombies are mindless – acting only on instinct or drive. Instead of blood, zombies feed on brains. Instead of needing to develop relationships with nubile necks, zombies tear and rip into any and all humans. Zombies are equal opportunity monsters. And instead of a singular vampire, the zombie attacks in hordes and large lumbering groups.

Zombies are the uncanny kernel of the Real, they are not the object which leaves a remainder, they ARE the remainder. Zombies are Das Ding, the Thing, human qua object. And because of this, OOP/OOO must deal with the zombie much in the same way Postmodernism (especially in Haraway and Lyotard) had to deal with the cyborg. However, instead of talking about how humanity will have become, OOP/OOO will have to talk about in what ways humanity is not unique – how we are all zombies. They must take up the zombie as a human representative since only in the zombie do we find the human as it “really” exists, without any obfuscation.

First, the zombie IS – of this there can be no mistake. The zombie is just as real as the computer in front of me. For OOP/OOO all objects are as real as all other objects. Second, the zombie exists as pure desire, it moves with a single purpose and without known agency. And finally, every zombie is the same. A zombie biker is no more or less threatening than a zombie baker or zombie dog. But essentially the zombie is an empty desire, an object with no name except pure existence. Why do they hunger for brains? Who knows. Will they ever stop looking for brains? No. And in a world where all objects are on the same level playing field, stripped away of our agency as subjects, we find ourselves in an awkward position, as non-human humans alive in a world of networks and alliances. We are all zombies. And the only question that remains in a this philosophy that deals with fidelity and allegiance is, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”